First I asked Steve why ‘Tambu’?
Steve: It’s a South American tribal dance. We changed the spelling slightly so it wouldn’t be miss-pronounced. It’s very obscure.
David (Paich) was very keen, whereas the rest of us though that nobody would know what the f**k it meant, but hey, we didn’t want to be too obvious!
When you did the press for your last solo record “Candyman” you seemed unsure about continuing with Toto...
Steve: After all we’d been through with losing Jeff (Porcaro), we did a long tour. The tour was very successful and helped with the healing process but it didn’t feel as if there was any real future for the band. We went of and did various solo things. I toured with Los Lobotomies, which took a year or so and we played in all kinds of freaky places. It was really great from a musical stand-point. When I got back my manager called about doing another record – we quietly sell millions of records- we may not be hip, but a lot of people still like us. I guess that’s why we still do it.
This was a hard period for us…We still have Jeff’s picture up in the studio and his influence is always with us. Hey, this is weird – I had a dream right after Jeff died - we were on tour as Toto with Simon (Phillips) on drums. We’re like rehearsing and I’m watching Simon tune his drums. Then I see Jeff standing at the side of the stage with a big smile on his face as if to say “Year, you have my blessing”. We got Simon in, ‘cause I thing he’s the only guy Jeff would’ve approved of.
When we started work on ‘Tambu’, Dave and I got together – I took an acoustic guitar over to his house. He has a piano and a little cassette deck and it was there we started writing songs…simple songs. It was good and different from what I’d been doing. Mike (Porcaro – Bass) and Simon came over and we jammed a bit – it seemed like fun.
That seems to come across on the record – it’s very relaxed.
Steve: I’m glad you think so. That’s what we wanted. It’s more of a songwriters kinda record. "kingdom Of Desire” was recorded in a huge rehearsal studio with amps cranked right up. While “Tambu” is more of a mellow, acoustic record.
Does it take a long tome for you to record an album?
Steve: There is a myth about Toto that says that we take forever to record things…I don’t like to do anything more than once or twice. We keep all the first takes. We hate to rehearse, and we’ve been playing together for twenty odd years, y’know.
What about the live show?
Steve: We tour – the four of us plus two backing singers – which means we can do different songs. People pay to see us and want to hear all the old songs. I wouldn’t play some of that stuff at home, but I really enjoy playing it live.
Over the years, you’ve had quite a lot of lead vocalists, who owing to the nature of your music have, on occasion, had very little to do on stage (Both Steve and David contribute lead vocals live and in the studio).
Steve: We thought for so long we needed an extra vocalist. It was in a different era when you need a high tenor singer. We tried five different singers and it was always disastrous. So, in the end, we decided we didn’t need anybody. We’d write different songs and tour with backing singers who are lead singers in their own right. It works out fine – everybody seems to enjoy it. We enjoy it and think we’ve got a good team together.
Can we go right back to your earliest days in Toto? You must have been quite young when you played on the first album.
Steve: I was nineteen. We had just finished the Boz Scaggs “Silk Degrees” tour. That was a great time for me. Nobody else was doing quite the work we were – I was doing sessions while we did the first Toto record.
You and Michael Landau seem to do sessions all the time.
Steve: Michael is on of my best friends, we went to high school together. Our high school band was Carlos Vega, Michael, Steve Porcaro, John Pierce and I (AOR super group or what?!). Jeff and David would come down and jam with us. Jeff was in Steely Dan. We used to play their “Katy Lied” album at our high school dances before it came out.
Were you surprised when “Hold the Line” was a big hit?
Steve: I remember the first time I heard it on the radio – it freaked me out! When it started to become a big hit it was like a dream come true. I still feel that way when you hear thousands of people in or wherever, singing a song you wrote in a living room.
We got the session work because we could read a little music, play well together and weren’t old farts! We had fun – maybe a little too much fun – back then. The eighties are a blur for me, but I’m told I had fun.
Of course, it was Toto IV that gave you your biggest break.
Steve: We had tried to be a real hard rock band for a couple of albums and we’d done okay. For the fourth record, we went into the studio and made our own record with no rules and it exploded! But then we had to get rid of our lead singer.
Why was that?
Steve: He couldn’t sing anymore. After the Toto IV tour, we went back into the studio to put together another album. Bobby was too f**ked up so we had to let him go.
It was then you got “Fergie Fredriksen” in...
Steve: He was a really nice guy, but I thought he was a much better live singer than he was in the studio. When you write songs, it’s hard to get people to interpret them. He was his own worst enemy. In the studio, he’d talk himself out of it…Then we got Joseph Williams in and he was great for a while, but he had drug problems. You can’t afford to have drug problems if you’re a singer – that shit rots your voice. I’d know Joe since high school. I was in a band with his brother – one of about twenty bands I was in.
When you did “Isolation” was it a conscious effort to heavy up your sound?
Steve: After a record like “Toto IV” you just can’t win. If you do something similar people say “Oh f**k…they did the same record again” and if you do something too different you’re doomed…
We wrote the stuff, and Bobby was supposed to sing it, and then Bobby left and we didn’t have a singer. Then we did that movie with David Lynch (“Dune”) which was a complete disaster – “Doom” we used to call it! I’m a big fan of Lynch but that film was so poor. I think that’s only a cult film because it’s so funny!
We went to the premiere and our music had been edited and put in all the wrong places. We’re sitting there sliding down in our seats thinking like “Oh f**k….talk about Spinal Tap”. It always happens to us. We could’ve done the “Footloose” film that sold 16,000,000 records, or something. Shitty record though.
My favourite record from that period is “Fahrenheit”
Steve: I’m proud of that record. My guitar sound is a little bit wet, but I’d just got my Bradshaw shit (that’s a guitar effects unit to the less technical readers) but I was over-using it a bit, but there are some good songs on there. The high point for me was working with Miles Davis…awesome! We did some cool stuff on that album and on “The Seventh One”, but when we toured Joe began to deteriorate…we all have a bad night or two, but you’ve got to be consistent. The myths about our drug intake were all blown out of proportion. You wise up…This band is consistent. We don’t have many bad nights. We make mistakes and bust each others chops but we still love each other. Some of the stuff we say is scathing but you can’t have an ego and be in this band. It takes the edge of stuff that can bug you.
The four songs with Jean-Michel Byron on the hits album are interesting. “Out of love” is a beautiful track.
Steve: I wrote that at Bearsville Studio while we were cutting stuff. I thought it was a better track, but I couldn’t handle him (Byron) – he wanted to be Michael Jackson! The record company found him for us and it just didn’t work. We were contracted to do a tour and hardly spoke. He knew nothing about rock ‘n’ roll y'know. Led Zeppelin, Hendrix…I think he though Toto was his band. He has disappeared off the planet now, who knows where he went?
Why did Steve Porcaro stop being a full time member?
Steve: There was a constant brotherly friction between Steve and Jeff… and we weren’t cutting enough of his songs.
How do you think you’re playing has changed over the years?
Steve: I don’t have the desire I had as a young guy to be this guitar hero kinda guy. I was never really accepted as the ‘Speed Demon’ kinda player, which was lucky, I guess. That’s what happens when you’re band is never fashionable. That kind of playing is dead. I think you can get arrested for it.
My sound has changed from “Fahrenheit”. I pretty much just plug into my amp now. We put a delay on the console – I like that (effects rig) but I’m using it less and less now. Live, I have a centre speaker that is bone dry. I don’t use harmonizers or choruses any more.
How are things for Toto now, with the music scene the way it is?
Steve: As I’ve said, we’ve never been fashionable. I know guys that have bought the mansions and the cars and all that shit. Hey, get a grip! Everyone thinks a platinum record means millions of dollars but that is only a myth. It’s expensive to tour; you have to employ a lot of people. I’ve lived a consistently comfortable life and I’m grateful. We get a very hard time from the press. America is now our worst market. I could count the number of good reviews we get nowadays on the fingers of one hand. I don’t mind well thought out criticism, but some of the press we get is unbelievable. Considering we’ve sold over 20 million records we must have some fans. That’s why we still exist. The year we won Grammies for Toto IV they said it was the worst Grammies year ever….You just can’t win.
Melodic Rock Live, December 1996